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Politics and Government

What the Colorado campaign trail looks like in the age of coronavirus, and what it means for the election

Even as the global pandemic puts politics on the sideburner, it is generating questions about how to run a campaign respectfully amid a disaster and generate enthusiasm with voters more concerned with their livelihood and health

A screenshot from a coffee chat hosted by Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Lorena Garcia, top left, on Zoom video conference and posted to her campaign's Facebook page. (Screenshot)
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One candidate is hosting discussions on Facebook with health care experts to answer audience questions. Another is collecting personal stories and playing piano to raise money for charity. 

Others are hosting online coffee chats, creating lists of community resources and releasing revamped public health plans. No one is shaking hands or knocking on doors or holding public rallies. 

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

The latest from the coronavirus outbreak in Colorado:

  • LIVE BLOG: The latest on closures, restrictions and other major updates.
  • MAP: Cases and deaths in Colorado.
  • TESTINGHere’s where to find a community testing site. The state is now encouraging anyone with symptoms to get tested.
  • VACCINE HOTLINE: Get up-to-date information.
  • STORYColoradans who have been vaccinated against coronavirus are more than 90% less likely to develop COVID-19

>> FULL COVERAGE

Welcome to the campaign trail in the time of COVID-19.

The novel coronavirus has overturned politics in Colorado, shifting the entire playing field just months before the party primaries and setting the stage for an election year unlike any other. 

Even as the global pandemic puts politics on the sideburner, it is generating questions about how to run a campaign respectfully amid a disaster and generate enthusiasm with voters more concerned with their livelihood and health.

“It’s felt almost wrong to campaign,” said Trish Zornio, a Democrat seeking to qualify for the U.S. Senate primary. “Coloradans don’t need a candidate asking for help or money, they need reliable access to resources, information and reassurance.”

A month into the coronavirus campaign, distinct approaches are starting to take shape and the impact on the election is becoming more clear, according to interviews with three dozen candidates and political strategists. 

The new landscape overwhelmingly favors incumbents and better-known candidates with more financial resources. Meanwhile, challengers struggle to qualify for the ballot, generate support from distracted voters or raise the money needed for a robust bid. 

At the same time, the current elected officials — from President Donald Trump to state lawmakers — face a major test in leadership. The coronavirus response is expected to be a benchmark that may extend beyond simple partisanship.

The new dynamic “probably benefits incumbents, as long as they are seen as responsive and take charge,” said Lori Weigel, a prominent Republican pollster in Colorado.

The wildcard is what happens next. The public health fears and social distancing mandates are expected to extend well after stay-at-home orders are lifted, so a return to normal by November appears to be a stretch. Political strategists agree that the final seven months of the 2020 election season are more unpredictable than ever before.

“We were on track for a pretty predictable election that focused in large part on Trump and the economy, and now we have a situation where prosperity has been turned on its head,” said Alan Philp, a Republican strategist. 

“The only certainty in this election,” he noted, “is that there are no certainties.”

Former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper speaks to Democratic voters at a caucus site in Denver on March 7, 2020. (John Frank, The Colorado Sun)

The first question candidates faced was whether to keep campaigning amid pandemic

The COVID-19 outbreak became serious in Colorado soon after the March 7 party caucuses, a key political moment as candidates worked to secure a place on the June 30 ballot. 

Like other workplaces, most campaigns sent their staffers and volunteers home and halted all in-person campaigning. Zornio and other candidates felt compelled to hit the pause button.

“I’d rather suspend our campaign if we could, but the election is not going to be postponed,” said Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Andrew Romanoff, the former state House speaker and a mental health advocate. “More to the point, we need a leader in office who can help the country recover from this disaster and rebuild.”

All the campaigns in Colorado quickly scrambled to adapt to the new rhythms of the virtual campaign trail amid the month-long stay-at-home order that started March 26. The candidates are attending party assemblies online from home offices and living rooms, hosting Zoom meetings with dozens of volunteers and reaching potential supporters with telephone town halls. Others amplified their social media outreach to remain relevant.

“You can still get your message out via social media,” said Ryan Lynch, a Republican consultant working in Colorado and New Mexico. “Especially now with folks being at home, having a robust digital strategy and social media presence becomes considerably more important.”

The difficulty with digital campaigns is how impersonal it can seem. And strategies like text messaging and postcards only go so far to connect with voters.

Hazel Gibson, a Democratic organizer and state legislative candidate, said there’s no equivalent to real-life campaigns. “The closest is phone calls — being able to talk to someone — but that still isn’t the same as being at someone’s door talking to them face to face.”

Even when you reach a voter, it’s difficult to talk politics. “In scary times, rightfully so, (voters) are concerned about their safety, their health and their loved ones, and concerned about how to pay their bills,” she said. “It’s hard to call and engage with voters when they are worried.”

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One of the first decisions candidates faced in March as the virus spread was whether to continue fundraising, particularly at the federal level where U.S. Senate and congressional candidates faced the first quarter deadline at the end of the month.

Most campaigns continued soliciting for campaign cash, often with desperate pleas, but many added qualifiers to their fundraising emails to note the moment. 

U.S. Sen. Cory Gardner, the Republican incumbent gave supporters the option to sign up to volunteer if they couldn’t contribute. John Hickenlooper, the top fundraiser in the Democratic U.S. Senate race and the former governor, asked people to “pitch in if you can afford to at this time. We understand if not, but anything you can contribute today to help us flip this seat will go a long way.” He also played piano from his home as part of a national benefit concert.

Other candidates shut down their fundraising and asked their supporters to donate to charities working to address the impacts of the coronavirus. Cheryl Hori, a national Democratic strategist, said some campaigns have determined “it’s now borderline immoral to continue online fundraising.”

But others like Dan Baer, a former Democratic U.S. Senate candidate, argued political fundraising is still crucial. “Donating to political campaigns shouldn’t be seen as something frivolous or in tension with supporting the most vulnerable; indeed, it is another way of advancing overlapping and compatible objectives,” he wrote in an opinion column.

“If you’re not talking about the coronavirus, people don’t want to hear about it”

In addition to fundraising, the candidates are rethinking the conversation with voters and looking for ways to move beyond the partisanship and talking points that typically dominated campaigns. 

The COVID-19 virus and the parallel topic of the economic downturn now consume most candidate events, and may transform 2020 into a single-issue election. 

“Breaking through on a message other than the coronavirus is virtually impossible,” said Tony Massaro, a Democratic strategist. “If you’re not talking about the coronavirus, people don’t want to hear about it because that’s all they are hearing, or they’ll think you’re weirdly out of touch that you’re talking about something else in the middle of a global pandemic.”

In her role training women candidates across the nation for the nonprofit Vote Run Lead, Faith Winter said the new approach is not political. The idea is to connect on a different level and acknowledge that anxiety is normal.

“What I’ve been telling our folks is that candidates need to act more like social workers versus candidates right now,” said Winter, a Democratic state senator in Colorado. “Instead of asking for money or a vote, ask where people are at.”

Republican consultant Kelly Maher echoes the sentiment: Be human. “Talk to a constituent the way you would talk to a family member who is scared,” she said. “Because everyone is scared. I don’t care who you are, everyone is scared.”

In addition to connecting on a personal level, Colorado candidates are acting as information hubs for voters to get the latest guidance on how to protect against COVID-19 and where to turn for help with unemployment, small business loans, telehealth and groceries.

This is particularly true for candidates currently in elected office, notably Trump and Gardner at the top of the ticket, who largely are putting aside the campaign and focusing on the response to the pandemic. 

In turn, the incumbent candidates can draw more media attention. For better or worse, the elected officials know the spotlight can turn two directions and their actions will influence whether voters grant them another term.

President Donald Trump listens as Cory Gardner speaks during a campaign rally Feb. 20, 2020, at the World Arena in Colorado Springs. (Mark Reis, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Competence and management are going to be considerable factors in the elections,” said Philp, the former regional director for the Republican National Committee. “No one is going to get this perfect, but when you look at Trump’s performance or the government in whole, (the question is) did they perform competently and manage well?”

The sensitive moment makes it difficult for rivals to challenge the incumbents and point out differences, particularly as the federal and state governments provide financial relief to so many people and medical supplies to health care workers.

“It seems to me that right now (President Ronald) Reagan’s message that government is the problem — that probably wouldn’t resonate well,” said Daniel Cole, a Republican consultant who works with state legislative candidates. “In today’s atmosphere, it sounds like a conspiracy theory.”

He added: “But a lot can change between now and November.”

Not all are willing to put aside politics for now. The Democratic-aligned Rocky Mountain Values launched digital advertising this week that attacks Gardner and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell for not doing more in the U.S. Senate to lower prescription drug prices. The two video spots don’t mention the coronavirus, but a spokeswoman aligned with the dark-money political nonprofit said in a statement that the issue is more urgent “during a global pandemic and an unprecedented time of economic recession.”

On the Republican side, Take Back Colorado, a fundraising committee tied to state House Republican leader Patrick Neville, spurred supporters to action with an “official Colorado coronavirus impact survey.” It asked whether Democrats were using the pandemic as an “opportunity to further divide Americans in a time of crisis” and raised money to support “President Trump’s leadership.”

The partisan attacks, strategists in both parties argued, risk sounding tone deaf in more serious times. A handful of strategists even suggest the pandemic may fundamentally change the political tone.

“My sense is when we emerge from our bunkers we’re going to want to stop a lot of the squabbling just to score points,” said Sean Duffy, a former aide to Republican Gov. Bill Owens. “This is not the time to clean out your ideological cupboards.”

Political campaigns work to keep alive the enthusiasm among voters 

The new tactics and messages are designed to replace the conventional campaign but it remains unclear whether they will generate the same levels of enthusiasm for the primary and general elections. 

Most campaigns — and even advocates pushing ballot measures for November — are hopeful that direct voter contacts will resume as concerns about the public health dissipate and the prevalence of positive COVID-19 cases decreases. But even if the campaign returns to a semblance of normal, it may be difficult to reach as many voters. 

“If you had someone knocking on a door with a mask three months ago, you probably called the police,” said Andy George, a Republican consultant. “But as it becomes more prevalent it might become the accepted norm.”

So far the video chats and telephone meetups are generating significant interest with top-tier campaigns touting attendance in the thousands and more questions than time to answer them. Other candidates are getting more creative to draw attention by including musical guests or even big-name political figures. 

“I think people are so desperate to connect right now that if you have someone interesting to come talk, people are going to log in,” said Winter, the national organizer.

In Colorado, the Republican National Committee moved quickly to online volunteer training and outreach efforts. On one Saturday in March, the Colorado team generated more than 100,000 calls as part of a national day of action. The volunteers read a script that asked people about their health, directed them to information about COVID-19 and touted Trump’s leadership amid the crisis. 

The virtual canvassing replaced the traditional door-knocking and house parties, said Kyle Kohli, a party spokesman based in Colorado. “We had that infrastructure so we were able to roll everything into the digital space pretty seamlessly,” he added.

Ian Silverii, the executive director at ProgressNow Colorado, a prominent Democratic advocacy organization, said voter outreach to increase turnout made the difference for his party in prior elections. “In 2012 and 2018, the two big blue waves in Colorado, the field programs … expanded the majority,” he said.

Yet even if this year’s door-to-door voter turnout effort can’t run full steam, Silverii remains confident that Democrats are motivated. “The enthusiasm is very real and very raw in Colorado,” he said. “That tactic getting taken off the table could hurt, but it won’t change the outcome.”

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